Saturday, February 01, 2014

Is there such a thing as natural selection?

Panda's Thumb put up a blog post with an interesting title a couple of weeks ago: "Natural selection reduced diversity on human Y chromosomes." Now I'm sure this is a very interesting article for other reasons, but I'm interested in the title of the article, which talks about "natural selection" "reducing" something in something else.

Natural selection, which is, apparently, some actual thing, is acting on some other thing. This brings up several questions having to do with ontological status of natural selection. What exactly is it? Is it some ghostly force? Is it a mechanism? How can it act on something else? In what way is it a subject that acts on other objects?

And this article title is hardly unique. Many scientists talk this way--in a way that reifies the abstractions they have themselves fashioned.

Now there seem to be two possible views here: First, there is the prescriptive view: that natural selection is a thing--it has some ontological status in the world and that it acts upon other things in the world. Second, and alternatively, there is the descriptive view: natural selection is not a thing in and of itself, but is rather a description of the way the world, in fact, behaves. Another way of putting it is that, under the prescriptive view, natural selection is something in the world, whereas under the descriptive view it is something in the mind of the scientist.

To talk about it in the way this article title does--and in the way many scientists do on many other occasions--assumes the first view. Do these people really believe that natural selection is a thing? Or is this just their careless way of speaking?

I imagine if you corner your scientific friend who speaks in this way, he will finally have to say that it is just a manner of speaking, in which case you can't really say that natural selection does anything.

Maybe, in regard to natural selection, it is just a way of speaking. But there is the same issue in regard to natural laws. Are they real in and of themselves? Do they have some prescriptive force on the things they are said to govern? Or are they simply descriptions constructed to fit a set of facts and events in the world?

I don't think it is too much to say that the general public thinks of things like natural selection and the law of, say, gravity, as things having prescriptive force. And it's partly due to the way scientists are always talking. I suspect that in this case there are more scientists who would take the prescriptive view. And this is certainly the way the layman thinks about scientific laws: that they govern things in the world, making them do this and that and prohibiting them from doing this and the other thing.

That is, after all what laws in the real sense of laws--the things our legislatures pass--do: they govern things. They order this thing to happen and this other thing not to happen. The whole reason for calling regularities in nature laws is to produce this impression--that there is something out there that makes things in nature act a particular way.

The prescriptive view of natural law is wholly unscientific. And by that I mean not that it violates any scientific principle (that would be positing a prescriptive law governing prescriptive laws), but that such a view lies outside the very purview of science. If scientists want to claim to be empirical, then they can't possibly believe in the prescriptive view because the prescriptive view is metaphysical. It is what the philosopher David Hume said about causation in general: it can never be arrived at by any empirical method: Nobody has ever seen a natural law. It is a metaphysical postulate that explains the way things happen. But it is wholly non-empirical.

This, in fact, is the whole objection to miracles: that they are claims that there are events that violate natural laws. The objection to miracles assumes the prescriptive view. And yet, I suspect that a number of the atheists out there who are always championing the integrity of science, and who would admit that, from an empirical standpoint, natural laws are merely descriptive, will turn right around and argue against the miraculous on the grounds that miracles violate prescriptive laws.

As Chesterton pointed out in his "Ethics of Elfland," the only way to view the world prescriptively is to view it as the result of prescriptive will. In fact will is the only thing that can really be prescriptive. It is the necessary condition for prescriptiveness. To use the term "law" in the context of science and then to deny that you are using it prescriptively is try to have your scientistic cake and eat it too. It's either careless or dishonest--or, perhaps more likely, thoughtless.

The way atheistic scientists talk is many times at odds with their stated positions. They say on the one hand that they are not engaging in metaphysics, but as soon as they say that they render much of what they say unintelligible. Their very denials make gibberish of the truths they affirm.

It's one of the great ironies of the whole language of science and natural law (or for that matter natural selection) that it only makes sense from a position of theism.

26 comments:

Daniel said...

Martin,

"But there is the same issue in regard to natural laws. Are they real in and of themselves? Do they have some prescriptive force on the things they are said to govern? Or are they simply descriptions constructed to fit a set of facts and events in the world?"

I rather doubt that the Law of Gravity is standing behind a traffic cone somewhere out in space, wielding a sign that says "Newton’s Head is That-a-way!" to remind passing apples of their Duty. :)

I'm not a materialist, but let's say for the sake of discussion that I am, and I take the position that natural "laws" are purely descriptive. What questions would you ask me in that case?

(I did read the post, but I usually need to go over philosophical arguments multiple times, before my head will consent to stop spinning.)

Peace,
Daniel

Martin Cothran said...

Daniel,

Good question.

I would first ask you, "If you believe natural laws are merely descriptive, then why do you always talk about them as if their prescriptive?"

And I would also ask you, "If you believe natural laws are merely descriptive, then why do you argue that miracles cannot happen because they 'violate the laws of nature'--a position that assumes that the laws are prescriptive rather than descriptive?

KyCobb said...

Martin,

"If you believe natural laws are merely descriptive, then why do you argue that miracles cannot happen because they 'violate the laws of nature'--a position that assumes that the laws are prescriptive rather than descriptive?"

In the post you wrote, "Second, and alternatively, there is the descriptive view: natural selection is not a thing in and of itself, but is rather a description of the way the world, in fact, behaves." So why would it be an assumption that natural selection is prescriptive to say the world does not, in fact, behave in a miraculous manner?

Martin Cothran said...

KyCobb,

You could make that argument, but most of the arguments I hear are not that miracles haven't happened, but that they can't happen. Thhat assumes the prescriptive view, and even when they make the descriptive argument (that miracles haven't happened, they keep the prescription assumption as a back-up.

As Chesterton pointed out: "If we say miracles are theoretically possible, they say, 'Yes, but there is no evidence for them.' When we take all the records of the human race and say, 'Here is your evidence,' they say, But these people were superstitious, they believed in impossible things'.”

KyCobb said...

Martin,

As a practical matter, science has to exclude the miraculous as an explanation, because it simply dead-ends research, and by assuming observable phenomenon have natural explanations, science has been enormously productive over the last couple of centuries, while the paranormal has been a stagnant field for millennia. So science excludes the miraculous by necessity, and its enormous success achieved by doing so is evidence that the miraculous is, at best, a very minor feature of the universe, if it exists at all. Anecdotal evidence which cannot be replicated from people who lack our knowledge of natural phenomenon is a pretty thin reed of evidence to rely on for paranormal phenomenon.

Martin Cothran said...

KyCobb,

I agree that science has to stipulate the consistency of natural events--that was principle first articulated by Adelard of Bath, someone who believed in miracles.

But that is a completely different issue and has nothing to do with the issue of scientists who say they view natural law descriptively but talk--and sometimes reason, especially when it comes to the existence of miracles, which are admittedly extra-scientific--under the assumption that natural laws is prescriptive.

Martin Cothran said...

KyCobb,

Anecdotal evidence which cannot be replicated from people who lack our knowledge of natural phenomenon is a pretty thin reed of evidence to rely on for paranormal phenomenon.

If it could be replicated it wouldn't be a miracle. That's like saying, "I just can't find the moons of Jupiter with my microscope." You're using the wrong instrument.

And "people who lack our knowledge of natural phenomenon..." Are you trying to say that people in past times were not aware the normal regularity of nature? Of course they were, that's the only way they would have thought that miracles were exceptional, which they did.

And "anecdotal evidence"? The may be the case with some miracles, but not all.

Anonymous said...

Martin, aren't there a lot of miracles that you DON'T believe in? It would be interesting to find that you believe various Christian miracles, but not those proposed by Islam, Hinduism, or New Agers.

Martin Cothran said...

Why should I believe in the miracles proposed by Islam, Hinduism, or New Agers?

Singring said...

'Why should I believe in the miracles proposed by Islam, Hinduism, or New Agers?'

Why should we believe in the miracles of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism - or any other religion?

Martin Cothran said...

Because, like any other historical event, there is good historical evidence for them.

Singring said...

So you think there is 'good historical evidence' for. Hindu miracles? Interesting! So you accept claims of hindu gods performing miracles? If so, why are you not a hindu?

Martin Cothran said...

You asked me why we should believe in miracles of any religion and I said on the basis of historical evidence. In other words, that's the criterion upon which you judge whether a miraculous event happened or not. I didn't say I thought Hindu miracles met that criterion, I was just stating the general principle.

One Brow said...

And I would also ask you, "If you believe natural laws are merely descriptive, then why do you argue that miracles cannot happen because they 'violate the laws of nature'--a position that assumes that the laws are prescriptive rather than descriptive?

Arguing that miracles can't happen, because the world simply doesn't work that way, is still descriptive. It requires no gate-keeper, no will, no enforcement.

Martin Cothran said...

So you don't make a distinction between "can't" and "doesn't"?

Singring said...

'You asked me why we should believe in miracles of any religion and I said on the basis of historical evidence.'

No, you said that we should believe in the miracles of Christianity, Islam and Hinduism 'Because, like any other historical event, there is good historical evidence for them.'

You know, for someone who just wrote a whole post accusing scientists of being ' careless or dishonest--or, perhaps more likely, thoughtless.' because they say 'law' when they shouldn't, you play it pretty fast and loose with words.

'I didn't say I thought Hindu miracles met that criterion, I was just stating the general principle.'

Watch this video, Martin:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tzhfPSxkdb4

A global hindu miracle!

As you see, Hindus can point to filmed evidence and the eye-witness reports of thousands who are still alive and can still be questioned today to support their miracle claims.

And yet, you seem to dismiss them out of hand.

Why is that?

Why do you, at the same time, accept as historically reliable texts written about a group of Arameic shepherds decades after they were alive, in a different country, in a different language, describing events to which the authors were not eye-witnesses and of which there are no original texts in existence?

Do you consider that kind of evidence more convincing than that presented to you on film and reported in person by many hundred times more contemporary, actual eye-witnesses?

If so, can you tell us the rational process that leads you to do so?

KyCobb said...

Just read a story which includes a discussion by a real scientist concerning her faith in the Resurrection:
http://www.slate.com/blogs/saletan/2014/02/06/creationism_science_and_religion_can_a_nasa_scientist_believe_in_the_resurrection.html

Lee said...

I don't know why being a Christian precludes believing in Hindu miracles, or miracles from any other sect, religion, cult or unknown source.

In the account of Moses' confrontation with the Pharoah (the first, I think), Moses' staff turned into a serpent as a demonstration of God's power.

Pharoah's magicians then threw down their staffs and they too became serpents.

Moses' serpent proceeded to eat the other serpents before returning to being a staff.

It isn't clear from the scriptures why the Pharoah's magicians were successful at changing their staffs into snakes. Were they successful because their own dark gods performed a miracle? Or were they successful because Moses' God was leading them on?

Good question. The scriptures don't say.

But we can't assume the latter. Do Satan's legions have supernatural power? The scriptures say so. That being the case, they can probably work miracles too.

Presuming the truth of the Jewish-Christian narrative, the Hindu gods may very well exist and wield some power. But in supernatural taxonomical terms, they would fall under Satan.

Singring said...

Thanks for clearing that up, Lee.

Thanks to the satanic powers of the dark legions, now of course it all makes sense!

Lee said...

Well, Singring, it seemed like you needed help. That's what I'm here for.

Singring said...

I'm very grateful, Lee.

You're being very generous with your wisdom.

As a believer in satanic forces that let staffs turn into snakes, you're ideally positioned to explain to others how the world works.

Lee said...

That's not how the world works. That's why they call them 'miracles'.

One Brow said...

Martin Cothran said...
So you don't make a distinction between "can't" and "doesn't"?

We used to go to a place called the Tilt House (IIRC) at Six Flags. It would appear to have things like water running uphill and billiard balls rolling upwards. Yet, I'm quite comfortable saying that could not have been true, because gravity does not work like that.

I think you might have confused "can not" (lack of capability) with "may not" (lack of permission). I would agree it's wrong to say miracles may not happen.

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